Tuesday, September 12, 2017

6 Ways to Make Readers Fall in Love With Your Characters

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton

Part of the How They Do It Series (Contributing Author)

When readers care deeply about your characters, they can lose themselves completely in your writing. But that story magic doesn't happen by accident. There are six specific techniques you can use to make readers fall in love with your characters.

The key is empathy. When readers develop enough empathy for your characters, they start to actually feel what your characters are feeling. The story becomes a shared experience. Coincidentally, the word “shared” makes a perfect acronym for these six empathy-building techniques:

• S is for Skill
• H is for Help
• A is for Affection
• R is for Raw Deal
• E is for Entertaining
• D is for Danger

You can use any one of these techniques alone, or use them all together for maximum effect. Here's how they work.

S is for Skill

You can catch a reader’s interest right away by making your character the best in the world at some particular skill. Craft your opening scene to showcase the character's skill in a dramatic way.

A word of caution: it’s too easy to rely on extreme skill as a crutch for character-building. There are far too many unpublished novels out there starring the best ____ in the world. Fill in the blank: lawyer, assassin, birthday clown, whatever. Make sure to add other dimensions to your character, too. (My PERSON acronym can help.)

When it comes to skill, you can also build empathy by going the opposite direction. Make your character one of the least competent people around. It's easy to sympathize with someone who is thrust into a situation that's clearly over her head. Then, you have a classic underdog story. The reader will feel like your character has an appealing “just like me” quality, which immediately builds empathy.

That’s the angle I used in my Dru Jasper urban fantasy series. Instead of being the world’s best sorceress, Dru begins as a rank amateur. She knows just barely enough magic to fumble her way out of danger. Yet the fate of the world is suddenly thrust into her inexperienced hands. This underdog angle was one of the reasons the series sold in a multi-book deal. So doing an underdog story can definitely be worth your while.

H is for Help

There’s a fantastic book out there by the late, great Blake Snyder called Save The Cat! (With an exclamation point!) If you haven’t read Blake’s seminal work yet, you ought to run out and get it right this moment. But in the meantime, here’s the gist of his book:

If you want readers to care about your character, you need to show the character helping someone in need, such as a child, an elderly person, or even a cat stuck in a tree.

Helping someone in need is the core of heroism. It doesn’t require charging into a burning building to rescue someone. It can be as simple as a kind word at the right time. But in some way, your character needs to help someone in the first scene.

In my new book, A Kiss Before Doomsday, the very first thing Dru does is try to save her would-be boyfriend. Then she turns around and saves the life of her biggest rival. So that’s two helpful good deeds in the first chapter, making Dru pretty impossible not to like.

A is for Affection

Shakespeare knew that the surest way to generate interest in a character was to have other characters come on stage and gossip about them. If other people in the story are interested in this character, then the reader’s interest will be piqued.

This is doubly true if these other characters show affection for your main character. Consider giving your character a tight cadre of friends who care deeply about her. If they have a good reason to care, then the reader will, too.

In my Dru Jasper series, Dru has two best friends who consistently give her grief, but they’re always there by her side in the tough times. That forms the emotional core of many scenes.

I once received a note from my editor saying that the focus on Dru's friendships is wonderful in a genre where female friendships aren't always front and center. She went on to say that she loved that aspect.

Get an editor to love what you’re writing, and your readers will love it, too.

R is for Raw Deal

By and large, the most sympathetic characters in the history of literature get a raw deal. By that, I mean that the character suffers some kind of undeserved misfortune. Just look hard enough at any great story, and you'll find a raw deal in there somewhere. Characters stuck in unfair situations immediately tug at our heartstrings

At the beginning of A Kiss Before Doomsday, Dru’s boyfriend is heartlessly taken away from her (raw deal), bad guys have destroyed her crystal shop (double raw deal), and a deadly undead curse has literally walked in her front door (yet another raw deal). Obviously, the poor woman is having a bad day. But bad days make for good stories.

Be careful: never, ever allow you character to wallow in self-pity. If you do, you risk vaporizing the reader’s sympathy. Your character may suffer plenty, but she can never complain.

E is for Entertaining

Is your character refreshingly brilliant, bitingly sarcastic, or laugh-out-loud hilarious? Is she as witty as we all wish we could be, ready with just the right snappy comeback at the right time? Or does she say exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time, inducing a sympathetic cringe in the reader?

No matter how you play it, as long as the character is entertaining to watch, that will hold the reader’s interest.

I made Dru Jasper the klutziest monster hunter around. Here she’s awkwardly fighting an undead creature in a garage using whatever tools are on hand, including an air compressor and a bag of absorbent clay...
As the creature loomed over her, Dru jammed the air hose into the plastic bag of clay and squeezed the trigger. A whoosh of air filled the sack, inflating it to the size of a beach ball. Dru hefted it up, blocking the creature’s next swing.

The thing’s claws slashed the bag. With an ear-splitting pop, it exploded. A blast of cement-colored dust rocked the garage, choking the air, making it impossible to see.

Dru coughed and sputtered, feeling as if she was drowning in a cloud of atomized concrete. She blinked, trying to clear her eyes, but luckily her glasses had taken the brunt of the blast.

She pulled them off. They looked as if they had been spray-painted in gray primer.

At her feet, the creature toppled over onto its back. It lay completely motionless, arms outstretched. Frozen like a statue.

The rolling clouds of dust coated everything inside the garage in the same thick layer of gray. Including Opal, who stared down at herself in horror. “Dru, what did you do? This is my new outfit!”

Outside, pounding footsteps approached.

“D!” Rane bellowed. “Where are you?” Puffing, Rane jogged in through the door. “Okay, I’m here. We can get this party start— Uh . . .”

Dru turned toward her and blinked, realizing that thanks to the protection of her glasses, she probably had raccoon eyes. “Hi.”

Rane started to say something, but a sudden bray of laughter burst out of her. She laughed so hard her entire body shook. She had to prop her hands on her knees to stay standing.

Opal planted her hands on her hips, releasing twin puffs of dust. “This is definitely not funny.”

Which only made Rane laugh harder, until tears streamed down her red cheeks. “Wait, wait. Omigod.” Rane pulled out her phone. “I’ve got to get a picture.”

D is for Danger

Back in the days of the pulp fiction era, when the newsstands were armpits-deep in cheap magazines with names like Saucy Detective Stories, writers were often advised to spice up a slow story by introducing a bad guy with a gun.

Simplistic advice, but it’s not wrong.

One of the quickest ways to get your reader invested in your character’s fate is to introduce an element of danger. It doesn’t have to be as blunt as a blue-chinned goon with a loaded .45 pistol. But it does have to represent a clear and immediate threat to the character.

If the danger isn't life-threatening, it has to menace another core part of the character’s life: her job, her home, her romantic relationship, her family, and so on.

You can also expand this danger by threatening someone or something that the character cares about deeply. It takes a little more work to make that effective, since you have to demonstrate just how deeply the character cares. But it can be powerful.

Another option: you can go all-out and make the danger truly epic. Here’s the opening line of A Kiss Before Doomsday:
A dark voice inside Greyson whispered that the end of the world was coming.
Now that’s some danger.

How to Build the Perfect Villain

Here’s a bonus tip. You can use these exact same methods, in reverse, to create a villain your readers will absolutely loathe. I’ll explain how in my next article here on Fiction University.

Exercise: Spot the SHARED Technique in Every Story

The next time you open up a new novel or sit down to watch a movie, take careful note of how the main character is introduced. Do they have incredible skills? Do they help someone in need? Do other characters show affection for them?

You may be surprised how often you see other writers use these six techniques to build empathy:

• S is for Skill
• H is for Help
• A is for Affection
• R is for Raw Deal
• E is for Entertaining
• D is for Danger

Use even one of these methods in your story, and your readers will instantly become interested. Use several of these methods, or all of them, and your readers will positively fall in love with your characters.

What makes you fall in love with a character? Leave a comment below.

Laurence MacNaughton is an urban fantasy and thriller author. His recent books include It Happened One Doomsday and A Kiss Before Doomsday. Find out how you can get a free ebook at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

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About A Kiss Before Doomsday (Dru Jasper, Book 2)

When an undead motorcycle gang attacks Denver's sorcerers, only one person can decipher the cryptic clues left behind: newly minted crystal sorceress Dru Jasper. A necromancer is using forbidden sorcery to fulfill the prophecy of the apocalypse and bring about the end of the world. To learn the truth, Dru must infiltrate the necromancer's hidden lair and stop the prophecy. But she needs to do it fast, before legions of the undead rise to consume the souls of everyone on earth…

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound | Kobo


  1. What a great article! Very helpful as I begin writing another new book.
    I want to read yours just for that scene in the garage!

  2. Thanks Allison! If you'd like copies of my other Fiction University articles to help you write your book, just contact me through my author website and I'll send you all the links. Have fun writing!

  3. By the way, if anyone is having trouble commenting on this post, I've had much better luck posting comments using Firefox instead of Chrome.

  4. Great post! If you're interested, I created a blog hop this year for just this type of post. We're at around 40 members if memory serves. Here's the link if you're interested in checking it out and potentially joining: https://raimeygallant.com/2017/03/22/authortoolboxbloghop/